COVID-19: Expanding our spheres of intimacy

We’re all in open relationships now…

As we emerge from our two-month government-mandated lockdowns, we are, in some ways, entering into a changed world – a world in which a nasty and potentially deadly infection continues to walk among us.  Many of us lived through the introduction of HIV, a virus far worse than any of the lesser STIs, and now we must confront a PTI – “Proximity-Transmitted Infection” – and begin to navigate a new world of communication and consent.

We can wish that the government would enforce our personal preference on this matter – require everyone to stay home as much as possible and wear masks everywhere else, or force everyone to return to normal in spite of the new risk – but the reality is that COVID-19 etiquette is exiting the realm of public policy and entering the realm of personal choice, and so all of us must determine our own comfort levels and personal practices.  Most of us are unprepared for this, and it is revealing differences among partners, friends, and families that were previously unexplored or unimportant.  In building our lives together, we have sought compromise on monogamy, child-rearing, location, politics, and religion, and either reached agreement or ultimately parted ways.  But nowhere in those conversations was the question of comfort level with a contagion.  We didn’t ask each other: “If hugging a friend ever-so-slightly increases your chance of death and your chance of bringing death to your family, would you still do it?  Would you be OK if I did it?”  Those are the conversations of the now times, and perhaps we could learn from the well-developed language of sexual communication and consent.

Intimacy entails a level of risk – of pregnancy and STIs, and of emotional connections that may threaten existing relationships – and that risk can be mitigated – with condoms, birth control, and established boundaries.  In effect, by adding a new level of social risk, COVID-19 has simply expanded our sphere of intimacy.  Whereas before it was deemed essential to have consent before planting a kiss, and good practice to have consent before giving a hug, hugging has now become a mandatory-consent activity limited to one’s closest circles, and it is now good practice to have consent before coming within six feet or so without a mask on.  An uninvited and unmasked intrusion into that six-foot radius is the new equivalent of an unwelcome embrace – a sort of low-level assault that makes us feel less respected and less safe in the world.  We are learning a new lexicon of negotiation, of masks, bubbles, and pods.

When to wear a face condom

Masks are like condoms for the face.  I mean that not at all in a derogatory sense, but simply in that they serve an equivalent function:  to prevent infectious particles (and yes, in this context, sperm are “infectious particles”) from leaving one sphere of intimacy and entering another.  We all have the same parts on our faces, and our mouths and noses are equally infectious, so mask wearing is not gendered, but in most other ways the analogy holds.  We can recommend that everyone practice “safer socializing” and wear masks whenever in public, but we also need to acknowledge that, like their sexual counterparts, masks have certain drawbacks.  Breathing is a bit more difficult, for one, but on a personal level it creates a change in our self-expression and experience of the world.  Scents and voices are muffled, and we feel a bit protected and withdrawn.  A conversation with a close friend feels more intimate, more trusting, when conducted without masks.

We can argue about where and how often we all ought to wear masks, but I think it is more important at this point in time to define interpersonal etiquette than to enforce broader societal standards.  On this level, the guidelines can be based on consent and respect and would look something like this:

  • If you need to approach within 6-10 feet of someone who is wearing a mask, wear a mask.
  • If you are entering a place that provides essential services for vulnerable populations (e.g. grocery store, post office), wear a mask.
  • If you enter an environment where a majority of people are wearing masks, it is courteous to put one on. 
  • Outside of these situations, please refrain from casting judgment on people based on their choice to wear a mask or not.

Bubbles and Pods

Along with our newfound expansion of intimacy comes a necessary negotiation of personal choices within each household or group of friends.  Are we comfortable dining in restaurants?  Meeting those outside the group without masks?  Hugging people outside the group?  Do we trust others in our group to be truthful?  Just as those who are polyamorous or in open relationships must negotiate what intimacies are allowed and with whom, now we all must have those discussions.  If anyone in my “bubble” or “pod” is engaging in behaviors that I am not personally comfortable with, then they are effectively making an unwanted choice for me.  There are three possible solutions to this, all of them potentially fraught:  1) convince the other person to accept my preferred choices as their own, 2) accept the risk that comes with their choices as a “price of admission” for having them in my bubble, or 3) decide to live in separate bubbles. 

This can lead to divisions and difficult choices.  For those caring for a vulnerable elder at home, it can mean a physical separation, with one partner taking on the caregiver role and remaining socially distant from the other partner and children.  For others, it can lead to choosing between forming a bubble with elders to the exclusion of friends and coworkers, or forming a more-porous, less risk-averse bubble with friends and coworkers while remaining socially distant from elders.  The larger and more diverse the group, the less likely it is that all will be able to agree on acceptable risks, and the more likely that that some boundary of physical isolation will be necessary in the weeks and months ahead.

Where are we headed?

It is almost impossible to predict the trajectory of COVID-19 at this point, and the parallel trajectory of our personal comfort levels.  If the disease fades out in the months ahead, perhaps our spheres of intimacy will shrink back to their previous size, and these concerns will melt away.  If it reaches outbreak status again, perhaps we will return to lockdown for a time, and in our enforced isolation be spared from confronting our differences.  But more likely, it seems, the truth will be in the middle, and COVID-19 will be neither a relic of the past nor a breaking wave of mortality, but rather a persistent background risk – like car accidents or cancer – that we all must make peace with in our own ways, making our own choices and navigating this new landscape of expanded intimacy with compassion and open communication.

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